Thursday, April 5, 2012

When Affirmative Action Works. When it doesn’t.

The Woman: Johanna Mollerstrom, Doctoral Candidate, Department of Economics

The Talk: The Downside of Affirmative Action

The Question: Do quotas negatively impact group dynamics?

Discussions around quotas and affirmative action policies can polarize conversations. At their core, we find ourselves asking, “Is this a ‘fair’ way to increase representation?”

The Research from Mollerstrom finds that when groups are created via a quota system, the amount of cooperation within the group decreases. While I won’t go into the details of the study (and more research is still in progress), she essentially hypothesizes three reasons why this may happen:

  1. Mood: If a person believes it is unfair for someone to be in the group, then he or she is less likely to cooperate.
  2. Entitlement: If a person is in the group for reasons besides credentials or merit, then resentment may occur.
  3. Punishment: If a person follows the a type of in-group-out-group bias, then he or she may favor his or her respective in-group.

While few in the United States promote the idea of a quota – the argument being that it tokenizes diversity and discredits qualifications – the current numbers are pretty stark. Only 17 percent of the US Congress is female; women constitute only 3.6 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs; and women hold only 16.1 percent of Fortune 500 board seats.

But globally these numbers are not much better. On average, women hold 19.5 percent of parliamentary seats and represent only 9.8 percent of board members (with this number swinging from less than 1 percent in Japan to 35.6 percent in Norway). Quotas are often discussed as an option to increase representation and parity. In 2006 Norway imposed a quota system that requires companies to have 40 percent of their board to be women. This past January, France joined them.

Is this about diversity, or how this diversity came to be?

While many are doing research in this field, the discussion around why we believe certain groups deserve representation is culturally and socially fascinating. For example, in the US, we consider the athletic quotas that stem from Title IX to be completely acceptable. Why is this? Why are we okay with some quotas, but not others?

Mollerstrom is doing more research around this question. Perhaps it’s rooted in historical legacies. Perhaps it depends on whether the environment is competitive or cooperative. Or perhaps it’s framing and relevance. Regardless, I will be interested to see what she finds next.

Melissa Sandgren is a MPP1 at the Harvard Kennedy School and a participant in WAPPP's From Harvard Square to the Oval Office program. She is also the author of the "For Struggling Boards, the Answer May Be Closer than You Think" in the 2012 Kennedy School Review.

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